Learning in the time of Pandemic

Second-year students drawn from Music, Sport and mainstream Journalism programmes are currently exploring the art of feature writing with module tutor Dr Rhian Waller. Together, they have captured the “new normal” of hybrid online and socially-distanced learning during a photojournalism exercise.

It’s only two weeks into the course, and already the students on the Specialist Journalism module have started telling their stories.

Zak Hayes records the strangeness of learning alone. Students at the University of Chester can book access to learning spaces, which are then sanitised after use. In pre-Covid times, this class accommodated dozens of students, but room capacity has been reduced to allow for social distancing.

Some of them are ‘attending’ online lectures in student accommodation, others from their family home. At least one student chose to tune into the session from a parked car.

Although the return to university can be a source of anxiety even at the best of times some, at least, are glad lessons have started again.

Charité snaps a cloudy sky during a photojournalism class exercise. She is tuned into the session via Microsoft Teams. Some students see daytime clothes as optional during online lectures!

It has been an uncertain summer for many, with local lockdowns in effect and workplaces affected by the pandemic. Some students found themselves at a loss for what to do during the holidays.

James Sinclair, who has an interest in video gaming journalism, says: “It’s good to be back. I finally have something to do again.”

Students outside the classroom: James opted to socially distance in his car during the online session.

Although last orders are now at 10pm, Sports Journalism student Dominic Forester is making the most of the university social life while lockdown laws permit.

He says: “[It’s] back to lessons till 5.30pm and few pints with the fellas in the pub afterwards.”

Adam Doyle expresses his frustration at technical issues. Distance learning has its advantages, but technology is rarely completely reliable.

Though much teaching has shifted online, and perhaps all of it will be delivered through video if Chester goes into full lockdown, the basic pedagogic aspects of the course remain the same.

Students have to engage in class discussions, research feature examples, analyse examples of journalistic writing and weigh in on the finer points of photojournalism.

“It looks religious,” one student opines, as they explore an Ed Kashi image showing a volunteer driving food parcels out to isolated and vulnerable people in Montclair, New Jersey.

“Yes,” says Dr Waller, excitedly. “Absolutely. The way the van doors are thrown open like wings, the Christ-like pose. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

The divisions between work and leisure time are blurred when they take place in the same place, as this photo by Sam Creed suggests.

Balancing study, social, work and home life has always been a concern for students. But it is more crucial than ever to get that balance right.

Catherine Marie Southall says: “It’s been quite a mixed experience [coming back], made some new friends and it’s been quite weird getting used to online lessons.

“But it’s definitely a lot easier in terms of having information accessible. There is also the anxiety that my dad and mum are both at very high risk of getting Corona, and there’s been a couple scares at my dad’s work. So I feel like I’m walking a knife’s edge half the time.”

Lily-May chooses an unusual place to go through the powerpoint lecture. Note the “comfy bed socks”.

Lily-May Jones faces a slightly different dilemma. She lives in Wales, where Covid restrictions differ from England. Earlier in the year, she was unable to cross the border.

Now she is trying to concentrate on class while at home.

Lily-May’s young relative gets to play outside while she works. One of the hardest parts of working in a home space is avoiding distractions.

She said: “I live at home, I feel like I’m not in uni. I’m not in the country that I should be learning in!

“Comfy bed socks though are a win, though.”

Sophie beside her current ‘classmate’. He doesn’t contribute much to the lesson, but at least he doesn’t need to socially distance.

Alice Bromwich, who is back in student accommodation, was determined to show the lighter side of things.

“I took this photo to show you can still have fun,” she says.

Alice poses with a book as she captured her new learning environment: her student digs

Dr Waller said: “We are all having to adapt. I prefer teaching face-to-face, as you can give in-depth feedback more quickly if you’re speaking with someone in class.

“However, teaching online has its advantages. Some students who might find it difficult to speak up in class are using the chat function on the video conferencing software. And, in a way, it reflects the working practices of modern journalists anyway.”

Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months, says Dr Waller, the tutors at the university are determined to support their students to do as well as they can: Covid or no Covid.

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